Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Fate of the Commons

Don't get me wrong: I have the utmost respect for people's creations. Whether it's a song, a chair, a book, a logo, I understand that copyrights protect the artists' rights to get credit and earn a profit from their works.

But our society, as depicted by Lawrence Lessig in an excerpt from The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, has lost its mind on this issue. While protecting the rights of those who have freely created, we're making it harder to create freely. In safeguarding one artist's work, we're stifling creativity in another.

Ten years ago, Lessig writes, permission had to be granted and royalties paid to use a work (whether it be a song on the soundtrack or a Pepsi logo on a soda can in the background) if it could be "recognized by a common person." Now virtually everything, even the seemingly nondescript props in the background, must be accounted for.

Big farming corporations have even found a way to patent seeds -- life! -- and then proceeded to take over smaller farms by suing for copyright infringement when the seed naturally spreads.

If we continue down this path offline, what can be said of creative freedom online? Right now, many websites use copyrighted photos without paying or permission; people download music through Limewire, MP3 blogs and the like; even major campaigns, as our guest in class said today, use popular songs without permission in their online ads.

I think we can all agree that downright stealing is probably bad. But the line isn't always so clear. From what I've read so far (and I'm looking forward to reading more) of Lessig, he seems to be right on: We need to err on the side of freedom and artistic license and go easy on all the copyrighting.

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